Sparks fly as final two contenders clash in UK leader debate

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The two candidates vying to be Britain’s next prime minister sparred in the first head-to-head television debate over how to help families struggling with the soaring cost of living that highlighted the contrasting economic visions of the Conservative Party rivals.

In a feisty discussion, broadcast live on television and with an in-studio audience, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss promised to cut taxes as soon as she took office, using borrowing to pay for it. Former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak said he would get inflation under control first, arguing that Truss’s plan would increase the public debt and leave people worse off in the long run.

Tempers flared as Sunak said that “it’s not moral to ask our children to pick up the tab for the bills that we’re not prepared to pay.”

Truss called that “Project Fear” and said it was sensible to borrow to rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic, a “once in a 100-year event.”

The pair are battling to succeed Boris Johnson, who quit as leader of the governing Conservative Party on July 7 after months of ethics scandals triggered a mass exodus of ministers from his government. The contest has exposed deep divisions within the party as it tries to move on from the tarnished, but election-winning Johnson.

Truss, 46, and Sunak, 42, have wooed Conservatives by doubling down on policies thought to appeal to the right-wing Tory grassroots, including a controversial plan to deport some asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

Hard-line policies like the Rwanda plan are less popular with voters as a whole than with Conservatives, but the British electorate won’t get a say on the government until the next national election, due by the end of 2024.

The leadership election is taking place during a cost-of-living crisis driven by soaring food and energy prices, partly due to the war in Ukraine. While many countries are experiencing economic turbulence, in Britain it’s compounded by the country’s departure from the European Union, which has complicated travel and business relations with the UK’s biggest trading partner.

Both Sunak and Truss are strong supporters of Brexit, which was the signature policy of the Johnson government.

Both denied Brexit was responsible for huge queues of vehicles waiting to cross to France at the port of Dover in recent days.

Bookmakers say Truss is the favorite to win. She outperforms Sunak in polls of Conservative members – though Sunak has the edge among voters as a whole.

The winner will be chosen by about 180,000 Conservative Party members and will automatically become prime minister, governing a country of 67 million. Party members will vote over the summer, with the result announced 5 September. 

Johnson remains caretaker prime minister until his successor is chosen.